I was not entirely convinced by the Lasithi Plateau at first. The guide book put it in the top five things not to miss in Crete. As we drove up through the rugged mountains, through the pass and down into this flat-bottomed dish of land surrounded by hills, there was an exciting sense of arriving somewhere.
Particularly since we had to make a huge driving detour to get here because the road from Neapoli was blocked by a landslide! This meant we didn’t arrive in Lasithi until after lunch and then grabbed some pastries for lunch – the last, greasy ones left at a tiny bakery in the biggest village. The weather was grey, with clouds rolling in and obscuring the tops of the mountains. I was feeling distinctly underwhelmed at this point.
Yes, there was a sea of the famous windmills but they were rusting metal pylons with few if any sails, furled or otherwise. This was not summer, when the windmills are traditionally used to draw up water to cultivate this ancient garden of Crete, although apparently not many of them are used even in summer these days, apart from the ones built by tavernas to attract the tourists…
We decided we wouldn’t attempt the walk to Karfi with Wandering Kiwi Jr because we were running out of time after the detour and you can’t hurry walks with young travellers. So we decided to do just one thing in Lasithi – visit the Dikhtean cave.
The story of the cave where Zeus was hidden as a baby to prevent him being eaten by his father is evocative enough – indeed it could be said to be at the heart of all Greek mythology.
After we got past the parking attendant, the fruit juice sellers, the kafenia the stone-flagged path showed the way up to the cave. It is a one-kilometre up-hill walk and there are always a few men offering donkey rides. This is not normally something I would go for but suddenly it seemed like a wonderful novelty for a six-year-old and we embraced the lovely brown donkey with its beaded muzzle and tapestried saddle cloth. And carrying her didn’t seem onerous for the beast.
The path was fringed by Mediterranean oaks and some deciduous trees showing autumn colours, which were not as bright as the grin on Wandering Kiwi Jr’s face as she rode up the hill.
And in the end the cave was very impressive, very deep and with huge stalactites and stalagmites. Concrete stairs plunge down and take you on a circuit through the depths. I could well imagine how some sort of story just had to be told around this place – and why not about the king of the gods? The view from up there over the Lasithi Plateau is marvellous and to cap it off, when we emerged from the Dikhtean cave we looked up to see two magnificent griffon vultures circling overhead, showing off their huge many-fingered wingspans!
A few days later we visited another cave near Chania and it was cathedral-like in size and atmosphere so it was not surprising that it is dedicated to St Sofia and that once ancient goddesses were worshipped there in Minoan times.
But back to the Lasithi. In the end I felt the charm of this place. The villages around the southern side of the plateau are lovely – Psykhro, Magoulas, Kaminaki. The only inhabitants seem to be black-kerchiefed old ladies, walking bent over their sticks. This is not picture postcard Greece but it is peaceful and perhaps a more appealing reality.
I have been reading Zorba the Greek by Nikos Ko and in this, his most famous novel in the minds of Westerners, the Cretan countryside is described as having severe lines, within which you can “discern an unexpected sensitiveness and tenderness…”
The Lasithi plateau is just the biggest of a number of such pockets of fertile farmland in the Cretan high country, where rich alluvial soil has washed down from the mountains to collect in jewel-like valleys. Here the whole plateau is covered with olive groves, stands of walnut trees and many, many fruit trees. There were wildflowers peeking through even at the end of October.
A kindly man sitting in the sun outside used his English language skills to help us buy our lunch at the bakery. Looking back, it was that sort of going-out-of-your-way friendliness really sold me on the Lasithi Plateau.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you driven around the Lasithi Plateau in Crete? What were your impressions?
Thanks to the delightful Minos Beach Art Hotel for hosting me in Agios Nikolaos, from where we made this day trip to the Lasithi Plateau.